One of the most difficult things a parent could ever have to do is share their terminal diagnosis with their child. No matter what the age, children depend on their parents to provide a sense of stability in their lives. Learning that a parent is dying is difficult even for adults, but it can be especially devastating for younger children.
A few simple “dos” and “don’ts” in communicating this unfortunate reality can help to support children through terminal illness.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Talking to Children about a Terminal Illness
1. Be clear about your diagnosis.
Tell your child the name of your illness and give them an overview of what to expect including symptoms like weight loss, hair loss, and tiredness. Answer all of your child’s questions about your terminal illness. Your child will likely have more questions in the days and weeks following your initial conversation. Practice active listening to quickly address fears and correct misinformation.
2. Maintain a regular routine.
Ask friends and family members to help keep your child’s routine as close to normal as possible by making sure your child is able to continue to regularly attend school and other activities.
3. Involve your child in your care at an age-appropriate level.
Allow them to help you by fetching a glass of water or an extra blanket. If you go into the hospital, ensure your child visits. Arrange the trip so that the child is supervised by someone who can take them home when they are ready to leave.
1. Don’t let your child hear the news from someone else.
Even though it will be a difficult conversation, it’s important that you be the one to share the information and answer your child’s questions about your terminal illness. Remember the old saying “little pitchers have big ears.” Make sure your child doesn’t overhear you talking about your terminal illness.
2. Don’t forget that your child will get their cues on how to respond from you.
Talk to them about your illness in a calm and reassuring voice. Ensure that your child knows they did nothing to cause the illness and that they cannot catch it from you.
3. Never let your child shoulder their worries alone.
Share your terminal diagnosis with trusted family and members of the community who spend time with your child including grandparents, teachers, babysitters, and family friends. Your child will need their support in the coming days, weeks, months, and years.
The most important thing you can do for your child is give them all the extra love and attention you can manage. Create special moments and photo memory boxes for them. Record you voice in a teddy bear for younger children. Write letters to each child reminding them of how much you love them. All of these things will be treasured for the rest of their lives.
Crossroads Hospice & Palliative Care social workers and bereavement coordinators can help you prepare to share your terminal diagnosis with your child. Please call us at 1-888-564-3405 to learn more about the support and bereavement programs available in your area.
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